19-36 Months: How Children Learn and Develop

Toddlers at this age are developing independence and gaining a strong sense of self-identity. More and more, they insist on working on tasks by themselves and having control over their environment.

They have a growing interest in books, art, toys, and other activities. They are better at communicating and understanding the world around them.

Every child learns and grows at their own pace. This page describes typical development but all children are different. If you have concerns about your child’s development, talk to your child’s health care provider.

Loving relationships are the building blocks for healthy development.

Strong relationships support healthy social-emotional development, which leads to strong mental health!

Loving relationships teach children how to make friends, understand and communicate their feelings, and overcome challenges. Strong, loving relationships help children develop trust, compassion for others and a sense of right and wrong.

Toddlers are starting to understand that they are separate from other people and that other people have feelings that might be different from theirs. This helps children develop empathy, or the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Children this age are more and more interested in other children their age. But they are still more likely to play near other children rather than with them. This is often referred to as “parallel play.”

Tips to support social-emotional development at 19-36 months:

  • Help children understand their feelings. Children this age are experiencing more complex feelings like embarrassment and excitement. Help children make sense of their emotions by using words to describe how they feel and how others may be feeling. Teaching children the words for the emotions they feel helps them talk about their feelings instead of acting on them.
  • Support toddlers’ developing skills.  Allow children to explore independently; just make sure the environment is safe. Be a supportive partner for your toddler. Encourage your child for their efforts — not just the result of their efforts (for example, You worked so hard on that puzzle to find where all the pieces go!). This lets children know that it is important to keep trying.
  • Help children learn to resolve conflict. Toddlers aren’t very good at self-control, waiting, sharing or controlling their impulses. These are skills that develop over time with lots of adult support. Play games that include taking turns to teach children about sharing. Distract children when they become upset and try to redirect their attention to another activity.
  • Make your culture part of the daily routine. A child’s culture is an important part of who they are. Find books and music at the library connected to your culture and make these stories and songs part of your child’s daily routine.

Source: Zero to Three, https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/developing-social-emotional-skills

Challenging behavior is common — and every parent should expect it — from birth to (at least) age three. This is because young children are just beginning to develop self-control. They have a hard time controlling their impulses and managing strong emotions.

Children this age are learning to self-regulate, which means they are learning the skills they need to calm themselves down when they become upset.  This can lead to some hard moments — for adults and children!

If you are struggling with challenging behavior like temper tantrums, crying, biting or defiance, there are lots of great informational resources to support you, as well as parenting programs in our community.

This page has excellent information on why toddlers throw tantrums, and what you can do to prevent and respond to your toddler’s meltdown.

Here are some tips:

Be a behavior role model. 

Children learn by watching the people around them, especially their parents. When we use polite manners and positively manage our emotions, we teach our children to do the same.

Another way to increase good behaviors is by praising children when they do things that you like.

Give children a lot of positive attention when they are doing something you like. For example:

“Good job listening the first time!”

“I really like how you are using your inside voice.”

Respond to challenging behavior with compassion. 

It’s not always easy to do. But when we respond with anger to our child’s challenging behavior, the situation only becomes more heated.

When we respond with anger, it makes it less likely the child will learn to manage his feelings in a positive way.

Try to understand the emotions that are behind your child’s behavior.

Name your child’s feelings to show you understand her.

Children need our guidance, patience and support to learn to manage their emotions in positive ways.

When your child is upset, acknowledge her emotions and name them. But be clear about the rules: “I understand you are mad, and it’s OK to be mad. But it’s not OK to bite other people.”

Give your child time to get the anger and frustration out, if necessary. Make sure he is in a safe space to calm down.

Once your child is calm, reconnect by showing empathy.

Children this age feel big, powerful emotions that they are only just learning to manage with our support. Once your child is calm, make sure to show empathy and compassion for the difficult emotions that he was feeling.

Learning to manage feelings starts in the first three years of life and is a long process that continues into early adulthood.

Healthy discipline strategies work. 

As parents, one of our jobs is to teach our children to behave. It’s a job that takes time and a lot of patience. There are effective and healthy discipline strategies that will make this job much easier.

There are also resources in our community to support you if you need help managing challenging behavior. Enter your zip code below and search for “parenting support”:

Sources: HealthyChildren.org and ZERO TO THREE

Many children with developmental delays or behavior concerns are not identified as early as they could be. As a result, these children have to wait to get the help they need to succeed in social and educational settings (in school, at home, and in the community).

It’s important to identify children with developmental delays or behavior concerns as early as possible. Research shows that early intervention and treatment greatly improves healthy development.

What is it? 

Keeping your eyes out for developmental milestones

Who does it? 

Parents, grandparents, other caregivers

When does it happen? 

Birth through 5 years old

Why is it important?  

  • To celebrate a child’s development
  • To talk about your child’s progress with child care and health providers
  • To identify any concerns early


Get free, simple-to-use checklists here.

What is it? 

Looking for specific developmental milestones

Who does it? 

Pediatrician, early childhood educator, other professional

When does it happen? 

At 9, 18, 24 and 30 months – or whenever there is a concern

Why is it important?  

  • To find out if your child needs more support with development
  • To decide if a developmental evaluation is needed


Professionals use a formal validated screening tool; learn more here.

What is it? 

Identifying and diagnosing developmental delays or conditions

Who does it? 

Pediatrician, child psychologist or trained provider

When does it happen? 

Whenever there is a concern

Why is it important?  

  • To find out if a child needs treatment, and/or
  • Qualifies for early intervention


Professionals do a detailed examination using formal assessment tools, observation and conversations with parents and caregivers.

Learn more about developmental screenings and Early Intervention

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/screening.html

Children age 19-36 months are starting to play with other children – instead of just next to them. They are beginning to compare themselves with others. They might say, “Daniel is a boy like me.” Children are starting to do things on their own and may insist: “Do it myself!”

They are starting to express their feelings and understand emotions. They use words to describe feelings and say what they like and dislike.

Try these tips to build a child’s resiliency skills at 19-36 months:

  • Provide chances to play with other kids, including kids from different cultures and ethnicities
  • Offer toys that encourage imagination and role play (play kitchen, dress-up clothes, etc.)
  • Use words to help him learn to share and take turns: “I’m going to share this car with you so you can play, too”
  • Encourage her when she shares or takes turns: “You gave Adam a block to play with – that was so nice”
  • Talk with him about rules, limits, and choices and why they are important
  • Help her identify her features like hair color, gender, size, etc.
  • Allow him time to do things for himself and encourage him: “If you want help, I am here”
  • Use words to talk about your feelings, the child’s feelings, and others’ feelings
  • Look at pictures of people showing emotions and help children identify the feelings
  • Always respond calmly; emotions can be overwhelming to children and your calm response helps them calm down

Source: Colorado Project LAUNCH, www.EarlyChildhoodMentalHealthCO.org

Support the social-emotional development of children 19-36 months!

Strong social-emotional skills are part of the foundation for lifelong mental health. As adults it’s our job to help children learn!

Click below for a downloadable PDF resource.

Learn About Child Development

0-4 Months

4-8 Months

9-18 Months

19-36 Months

3-5 Years

6-8 Years